Lifeforce Chapter 61
"If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army."
-Frederick the Great
The Cragmite Assassin
The stalemate of the Great War had gone on for almost three generations. The Cragmite Empire was vast; spread across Polaris like a cancer and holding each planet in a deathly grip. Three generations ago, the lombaxes had unexpectedly – that is way the cragmites put it – unexpectedly risen up and rebelled. The domino effect that followed had the rest of the galaxy support them, and the war began.
The element of surprise the lombaxes had on their side allowed them the upper hand to begin with; that and their superior technology. Even the cragmites had to admit it was effective, but eventually the sheer size of their Empire's power allowed them to straighten the stack and fight back with equal force. Thus began the stalemate; with the galaxy caught in the middle.
Reepor, these many eons ago, was covered in factories, cities, and training grounds – the 'cities' barely like those of any other city, more recluse, as no cragmite that wasn't a female or a child was truly considered a 'civilian'. It was during the reign of Emperor Maliko that Toranux was destroyed by Baggog, and when it happened, most cragmites didn't even know.
Apart from four.
The battle raged around the valley; bullets soaring over the thick green rivers and past the bridge and platform, where thousands of years later the last of the Royals would break said bridge during his 'rise again' spectacle. The lombaxes that had been dispatched to Reepor where dressed heavily in amour, even their faces covered – but their triangular ears where all too apparent, along with the wrench-like symbol stamped upon their shoulder blades. The cragmites and fuzzballs where fighting viciously; there where fires rising from the nearby pipelines and buildings due to the crossfire – and above the smoke, overlooking the valley, two other cragmites watched the chaos.
One was small in stature with a boxy head, sitting upon what looked like a two-legged droid to give him mobility; clad in a high-collar suit that was the colour of dark wine, and a crown that resembled spikes more than anything else. His face was set in a half-frown, the ghost of a smile upon his face. Beside him stood a much taller, much thinner and proportionally different cragmite with longer legs, his flat, round head masked, his posture stiff.
The lombaxes below where being swarmed. The valley's structure allowed the pin-like legs of the cragmites to move along with far more mobility than the lombaxes; used to dry, flat terrain. With the lack of room it was clear they were having trouble, but they were nowhere near to losing.
Standing atop the platform in the centre of the valley, having moved along the bridge, was a particularly buff lombax waving commands at his fellows below. The Emperor overlooking the valley turned his head to the thin one beside him.
The lean cragmite bolted forward wordlessly, twirling a staff-like spear in his three-fingered hands. Silently sliding down into the valley on long legs and vanishing into the fray. The cragmites below where taken by surprise when, at their leader's command, the lombaxes pulled out strange, boxy looks guns – that abruptly blasted a shower of light at them like stage lamps. The cragmites, their eyes adjusted to the dark of Reepor, weren't prepared – and ducked back in alarm as the light stung at their eyes.
The lombax in charge raised an arm for his fellows to begin firing at this moment of weakness – when he was shot point blank in the side of the head. Both sides halted alike and all heads stared up as he fell face-first to the ground with a final clunk. The cragmites seemed to simultaneously grin as they turned back to the now leaderless squads.
The lombaxes drew back immediately, firing smoke pellets back at the insects in order to aid their escape, some being hit as they fled. The cragmites raised their weapons and roared in victory, a booming sound that followed the lombaxes out of the valley.
As the cragmites below celebrated, hitting their weapons together and laughing gruffly, some kicking the body of the fallen Commander, the thin cragmite slowly moved away from the bridge and platform area, along the mountain roads, until the noise began to die down.
Feeling he was finally along, he loosened his mask and began trying to pry the blank piece of metal off – when suddenly he was seized around the shoulder and dragged back.
"For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow!" Two voices boomed at him, as his mask dislodged at last and clambered to the ground. The assassin sighed heavily as a hunter, bearing a long, crocodile-like face, a hunched back, an eye patch and half a head of straight, lanky hair (a trait he hoped people wouldn't be inclined to ask about) had seized him and rubbed his round head like a balloon.
Beside him was a warrior, bigger than any of his class, with a large, chubby-looking face and under jaw, with teeth poking crookedly from his lower lip, and a head of fins that where almost sharp like a spiky fan. He was singing along with the eye-patch hunter, with a more vacant look of his face. At last, a smaller hunter clad in a pilot-helmet-like hat and turtleneck, who was scrawny as he was younger, was rolling his eyes at their antics.
All of the four where still in their youth; the two grabbing him a little older, the one tittering a little younger.
"Guys, I'm not in the mood!" The assassin called over their singing, half-laughing despite himself. The larger hunter shoved what looked like a cake into his mouth.
"Aw, he's bein' modest – I guess we shouldn't be worshipping your feet since we did all the work to begin with."
"I shot the guy." The assassin managed to say through his mouthful of cake. He gulped it down to continue, "I didn't see you guys, where were you?"
"We where there, trust me, Skii." The scrawnier hunter said, grimacing, "Trust me, it wasn't pretty. The lombaxes have been landing on Reepor much more recently. I wonder what their deal is."
"Their deal is that they're running out of ideas, Skeet." The larger hunter said, nudging him a little – an action that almost knocked him off his feet, "Obviously."
"Wilt, the lombaxes aren't stupid." Skeet shot back at him, "There must be a reason..."
The warrior, who was watching as if he didn't really follow what was being said, noticed that Skii the assassin was moving down the road.
"Where'ya goin'?" He inquired in a slow, deep, but oddly light voice. Skii stopped and sighed, with the trio's eyes now on him.
"Just...I dunno, feelin' like some alone time tonight, guys. You go celebrate." And he moved away as quickly as possible.
Leaving his friends like that wasn't something he often did, but tonight he didn't want praise. He hadn't done much and he didn't feel satisfied. Moving along the empty roads, slowly increasing altitude, he looked at the city below. It was basking in a light of green and yellow; glowing from within rather than above, like embers. There seemed to be a hover of blue-purple musk in the air, something he was used to by now. He continued walking.
He sat down on a ledge, far from the noise of victory, and stared over the city and factories in the valleys below him. If someone asked why he'd gone off alone, he wouldn't say.
He saw a blink in the sky. Skii raised his head, and up, among the stars, behind the green, foggy clouds, something was blinking like a light on radar. His eyes narrowed and he concentrated on it – only for it to flash.
He wasn't the only one who saw what happened next.
A blazing blue ball of light came soaring down from above, across the sky – THIS sky, so close it was impossible to comprehend. It sped past his field of vision and into the mountains beyond the city, crashing with a crack that echoed all the way back to him.
Skii stared, mouth hanging open, at what he'd just seen.
It took him hours before he found the source. He'd followed the direction the sound had came at first, then the broken trees, skids marks on the rocky walls – and found himself navigating a very narrow path that was barely a path at all; more like a wide crack in the mountains. He stumbled along, huffing, until he saw the crevice ahead cut off into a much broader area in the mountain. Like a dimple in the rock.
He slid in, glancing upward and saw the sky above was far cloudier than usual. Whatever had fallen from the sky had created a deep crater in the mountainside.
And there it was. The assassin, holding his spear-like staff tight in his hands, he approached. As he did, he felt the air around him grow colder. His eyes widened, and his heart began to beat faster. He felt a...sensation he'd never felt before, and it almost made him back away. The cold air got into his lungs, filling his body with the chill. There was a lean, black rock sitting in the centre of the crater, pointed in a way that it almost resembled crystal or glass. And within it was a pulsing light, the palest blue he'd ever seen – a colour that just didn't fit Reepor.
That light seemed to rise around the rock like fire around a branch, a force-field almost. Slowly, he reached out his spear and tried to prod the rod with the tip – only for it to bounce off. He leaped back, automatically alert for some kind of attack...but none came. Straightening up, he looked left and right. Then, he reached out a hand, hesitantly. Not knowing why he'd gotten the idea.
His hand went through the blue light surrounding the rock, and he leaned further, his fingers just about to brush the smooth surface.
His fingers fell upon the rock, and a burst of light sprung into the air. Skii leaped back and raised his head, his eyes widening in fright and confusion as whispers rippled around him, loud yet hushed, and the light from the rock hovered above him like a second sky. The colours of dark blue, light blue, and the faintest hint of purple, twisted above him like smoke in the wind.
He raised his hand, his fear ebbing to curiosity, as he reached to touch the light again. But a crinkling sound caught his attention. He looked down and saw that around the rock, ice was forming in large, spiky shards, growing across the ground towards him, encrusting half of the crater. With a sharp intake of breath, the young cragmite turned and scuttled back the way he came, the cold now nipping at his head-fins and his back.
He threw one look over his shoulder and saw the shards of ice had overtaken the whole crater and where spreading across the crevice-path he stumbled along now. He sped up, his breath hitching, and wondered what on earth he'd just seen.
When the young cragmite was long gone, the shard began to crack. An arm burst from the rock and sunk its fingers into the rock around it. A face stared out from within, blazing with hate that was rapid, vicious, and vengeful. An echoing hiss rang through the cragmite mountains, distorted, and barely alive.
Ratchet had lost count on the amount of times they had been 'apprehended' during this adventure. Qwark, Cronk, Zephyr, Clank, Tenahee and Himself where all tied in a circle around a thick glass tube. From within, gooey green fluid bubbling, and the heat of it was beginning to make Ratchet feel uncomfortable. Qwark's lip was trembling and the two old warbots wouldn't stop fidgeting. Orange strode nearer to the group, grinning from ear to ear.
"How do you like my fluid chambers? The glass is sturdy, to an extent." He said, hitting his hand against yet another one of these bright green tubes nearby. "Great for central heating."
Ratchet knew the heat of the fluid condensing through the glass had to have been the reason they were now stuck to them. "Was is it some racket-running criminal gets from all of this anyway?" He called, fidgeting a bit, "Do you want the galaxy to be destroyed? Do you want Tachyon back in power?!"
"No." Orange said, idly poking the glass of the tube beside him, as if that took up more of his attention that his prisoners.
"He ain't got an answer." Zephyr commented bluntly to Cronk, acting as if the orange maniac couldn't hear them. Cronk snickered,
"Yeah, he has no idea what he's doing!"
Orange's gaze turned back to them, and he almost looked like he was pouting. Then, he scowled and shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not a 'villain', I'm a criminal mastermind. I don't explain all of my plans."
"You love an audience, though." Ratchet commented. Orange grinned at him, eyes wide again – and Ratchet shut his mouth.
"OH, I have one. I've always had one." He strode over to them, and all parties tried to the best of their ability to squeeze themselves away from him. He stood before Ratchet and Tenahee, tilting his head.
"Isn't it odd to have three lombaxes in one place? I'm surprised your mind hasn't shut off from shock, Ratchet."
"I would have preferred better circumstances." Ratchet said, "And for a fourth of the remaining lombax population not to be an annoying crazy."
Tenahee may have grinned, but her head was turned away from Orange, not even looking at him. Orange leaned his head and back, trying to slide into his vision, but she kept turning her head away. He chortled and wandered over to the control panel, apparently losing interest.
"I'm afraid I can't have you saving Percy-Boy just yet, so you'll just have to stay here and play with some of my...staff." Orange said, slowly pressing in a few keys. Ratchet felt the heat of the liquid tube against his back begin to increase, burning through his clothes. He gritted his teeth.
"Why? What is it you're planning?"
"Nothing. Everything." Orange giggled, beginning to move away. Ratchet rose a brow. The old 'leave them to die' cliché? That couldn't be right...
"Oh, and by the way, I'm not leaving you to perish from overheating." Orange called, practically skipping to the door, grinning over his shoulder at them. "My guards will be watching you."
The guards stepped forward, various goblin-like goons, who cocked the ends of their blasters right at each of their foreheads. The clicks of each weapon loading reverberated through the dim area. Ratchet sighed.
"And if you managed to incapacitate them, if anyone comes to save you, that tube will automatically overflow and douse you in burning got liquid. You'll die if you're lucky – if not, you'll never look pretty again." He waved merrily at them and disappeared through the door.
Qwark couldn't take it. "NOOOO! NOT MY HANDSOME MUG!"
"Keep it together, Qwark!" Ratchet hissed. How where they supposed to plan with these guards surrounding them from every angle? Urgh, this was going to suck. There had to be a way to hack into the control panel and turn of the command for the pipe to overflow, but how did it work? Did it activate on a button-press or would it be able to detect them leaving the side of the tube? He groaned. This was tricky, he had no idea how it worked.
And we can't plan because these guards are right here. What, was Orange going for the rubix-cube of prisons...?
Rubix Cube. Cube. Box. Clank...
The yellow lombax looked at Clank, and Clank looked up at him. He beamed, as if to say, let me handle this.
The little robot suddenly blinked and peered past the guards, as if seeing something that shocked him. The guard pointing the blaster at his head looked over his shoulder too, but saw nothing.
"Whaddaya lookin' at?"
"Nothing." Clank said cheerily. The guard pushed his blaster right into his face, a little 'clink' ringing out.
"Don't play games, Toaster! If anyone tries to save you, the green liquid will give you a nice, hot shower to clear your minds!"
The goons all laughed, gruffly, though that didn't make much sense. Clank tilted his head, beaming, "Oh, I assure you, no-one is there."
Ratchet hoped he knew where he was going with this. "Clank..." Clank didn't answer, still smiling contentedly. The goons exchanged glances, the slightest worry passing over each of their thuggish mugs.
"What if there is someone in here?"
"They'd just end up killing their pals."
"Yeah, but what if we get attacked because we where ignorin' them?"
There was a pause. Clank continued, "I do hope they have us in mind – then again they may not be here to save us at all – maybe they are here simply to disrupt Orange's plan by getting us killed."
"Who would wanna do that?" One goon asked, growling. Clank cocked his head at him,
"Well, I know a few people – many who work for Tachyon, Loki, Nefarious – maybe even some rival racketeers. I am sure it wouldn't be someone on OUR side if they were here."
"So you're saying there is someone here."
"Not at all, but that is just my opinion." Clank said, still smiling. The goons blinked at him.
"So there COULD be someone here...?"
"There could very well be, if you say so."
The guards looked around at each other, near delirious. Then, one said: "I think we should check it out, just in case, even if he doesn't think anybody's here."
Two of the goons stayed as the rest wandered around searching the area for someone that, to the best of Ratchet's knowledge, wasn't there, as Clank hummed merrily to himself. Tenahee was grinning faintly, her head bent. "...What's going on...?"
The control panel began beeping. Now, even Clank looked surprised. One of the goons ran over, eyes wide. "H-huh? The overflow is activating?!"
The group of heroes gaped in horror.
"But they're not trying to escape – if they die when Orange wants 'um alive, what will he say?!"
"But he's the one who ordered the booby trap so they WOULD die!"
"Will clearly he'd PREFER them alive if he'd leave 'em alive in the first place! What if they die without there actually being anyone here to save them?!"
"I got it!"
One of the goons grabbed the chains, unlocked the padlock, and threw the group off the tube. Ratchet gave a gasp of relief from the unbearable heat, but as soon as they where free they were dragged away from the tube. Was this Clank's plan? But how –
The lights shut off.
"TOO EASY, SUCKERS!"
A high, scratching, nasally voice cut through the air, and Ratchet could only lie where he was incredulously as the sounds of punches, slams and cracks sounded all around him. "..."
The lights went on, and he saw toes. Or feet at least. He looked up. Standing on the pile of unconscious, beaten goons, Dr Nefarious was poised, one knee higher than the other, his blaster in the air and his back straight, poised perfectly for a poster shot.
" WELL? Where is my gratitude, worm?!"
Ratchet, Tenahee, Cronk, Zephyr, Qwark and Clank himself all stared up at him with their jaws hanging open. Qwark's face fell flat on the ground where they lay.
Clank snapped out of his daze first. "Thank you for your help, Nefarious, it is most welcome."
With that, the taller robot seized the little robot off the ground and shook him like a child with a piggy bank, "Don't you DARE act smug with me!"
Ratchet pushed himself onto his feet, almost stuttering, "B-but, how? How did you –"
"Who's this?" Tenahee asked, eyes wide and voice light.
"WHO'S THIS?!" Nefarious pointed theatrically at Tenahee, bellowing right into Clank's smiling face. Suddenly Nefarious was snatched off the air, and was being crushed in a horrifying death-grip that made him double over like he was having a heart attack. This turned out to be Qwark giving him a bear-hug.
"OH, we're so GLAD for you evil self to show up here in our time of need, that's so touching!" He gave a loud sniff and wiped at his masked eyes, "Gettin' emotional!"
Nefarious lost it.
"GET OFF ME YOU WALKING GREEN TUB OF SCUM –"
Ratchet and Tenahee slapped their hands over his mouth to shut him off. The group waited, listening – but no alarms, no alerts, where activated, even at the level of noise.
"Right...now we find Raymas." Ratchet said, shakily, as Nefarious kicked and lashed out the best he could, his furious screams still muffled.